In this essay for The Guardian, John Mullan has laid bare a dirty secret I share with many of you. Why do we read fiction? Watch tv & movies? See plays? Plot.
“How we love plots—and how we look down our noses at them,” Mullan begins his essay. Sophisticates are supposed to prefer in-depth character studies, deep psychological explorations, wrenching perspectives on arid reality. I’m afraid I’ve never recovered from the childlike thrill of having a story read to me whose next installment almost made bedtime something to look forward to.
But in contemporary novels, says Mullan, “it sometimes seems that the delights of plot have been contracted out to genre fiction”—especially mysteries, thrillers, and the like. In other words, my favorites.
Of course, genre fiction with believable characters, plausible action, intriguing settings, and (my preference here) significant themes are more satisfying to read, for me it is still plot that makes them worth reading at all. “Yet nowadays we admit the enjoyment of plot as if it were a low kind of self-indulgence—irresistible but ignoble,” says Mullan. We recognize it is what makes us unable to put down certain books, “but not what we any longer expect of ‘serious fiction’” (my emphasis). However, as literary agent and author Donald Maass points out in Writing 21st Century Fiction, plots is more than “clever twists and turns [that] are only momentarily attention-grabbing.”
The many significant characters in the novels of Charles Dickens all turn out to be important to his ultimate plot, even when you don’t fully appreciate their role until the end. Though the drama may have been unfolding through a series of seeming digressions, every aspect is important to the ultimate outcome. This is quite different from presenting string of red herrings and random events. Or, as Mullan puts it, “Plot is what stops narrative being just one thing after another.”
The ending of the popular television series The Good Wife or, Mullan suggests, the evolution of Game of Thrones, appear to have abandoned the connecting thread of plot development for ad hoc-ery: “matters of ingenious improvisation rather than achieved design.” When viewers began to feel this during the six seasons of Lost, what was lost was their interest.
Must writers plan out every detail of plot development before they begin writing? Of course not. When I’m writing a story, I dump in all kinds of information that comes to me as potential plot elements. As I work toward the conclusion, some of these ideas are discarded and some minor points turn out to be essential to the final resolution. In that way, I retain the freshness of discovery, which I hope I can transmit to the reader, I have a rich array of clues and directions to draw upon, and I’ve laid the groundwork for the ending.
Sometimes that groundwork needs to be reworked and strengthened, the reader reminded obliquely of a particular point here and there, but the aim is to achieve a coherent whole in the end. And for some of those points to surprise readers, to smash their expectations head-on and veer off in a different direction, but one totally supported by the plot elements that have gone before.